24 Hour Theory People: Part 2
This is Part 2 of a three part conversation on the legacy of the cultural theorist Mark Fisher and the wider blogosphere from which his thinking emerged. The conversation took place in September 2019, via Google Doc between between six writers who were each engaged with Fisher’s work and involved in the blogosphere at various, overlapping stages. Read Part 1 here.
Anwen Crawford: What did the medium of blogs allow for? At the time (and this seems so quaint now), the very existence of hyperlinks felt novel, and exciting. There was the great thrill of seeing one’s own post or posts hyperlinked within someone else’s blog post — the fact that your writing was interpolated in theirs, which in turn linked to others, which linked to others: the hyperlink helped to produce the blog hive mind, the collective discussion. The ‘blog roll’ on people’s homepages did something similar, though slightly different, as a kind of roll-call or what’s hot index compiled by each blogger. (Again, the thrill of finding your blog on someone else’s blog roll, or the snub of being left out…) The look of people’s blogs really mattered, I think: Mark’s was always a bit forbidding, on that black background with the white Courier font; Owen, I remember Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy being on a white background?
I’m interested in the materiality of blogs in part because I came to blogs from zines, and I still make zines. Though the two mediums share philosophical similarities (DIY, self-publishing, alternative curriculum, gift economy, etc.), they are materially very different, and produce different kinds of reading and writing practices, and therefore different kinds of communities. (‘I prefer the term “network” to “community”’, Mark wrote.) So, my second question is: how does the k-punk book function for readers (and maybe for writers?), in terms of being a book? (Owen has already remarked that leaving out ‘The Comments’ makes Mark’s work seem more one-sided and more judgemental than it actually was, in practice). What does it lose or gain in its migration from the blogosphere to the printed page?
I guess this might also be a cue for some reflection on the Zer0 Books/Repeater Books project(s), which came out of the blogosphere. [Repeater Books was founded in 2014, after Mark and the original editorial team behind Zer0 left that imprint.]
Rhian E. Jones: I also had a background in 90s zines (based around the Manics and riot grrrl mostly), and hadn’t actually thought about the similarities with blogrolls, but it’s an obvious point of comparison and probably played into its appeal for me in terms of an interconnected community, plus validation or snubbing. Obviously that sense of connectedness is far more immediate and fast-moving (as with everything online) than waiting anxiously for homemade missives to arrive by post. The transition (or translation?) of Mark’s work onto the printed page I think risks lending it a sense of canonisation, and (less riskily) of permanent significance; there are benefits and drawbacks here, most obviously that the ephemeral or transient nature of opinions expressed online won’t always stand up to being set in stone or withstand changing circumstances. I don’t think any reader is likely to regard the book as a sacred text, though, rather a snapshot of its moment of production. As a historian, and as someone aware that very little of the 90s zine culture I remember has been materially preserved, I do find it helpful — or oddly relieving — to have a permanent document of some of these thoughts and debates — who knows, in fifty years it might prove useful to those wanting to track the rise and fall of capitalist realism…
Owen Hatherley: Zine culture definitely endured into the early 2000s, but it was very much not part of the k-punk world. It was connected with really non-k-punky genres like riot grrrl and post-C86 Scottish and American indie. But there is a zine connection, and it runs through VAGUE— which I’m glad to see people have mentioned. I first met Laura Grace Ford of Savage Messiah fame with Mark at a Tom Vague reading in, I think, 2006, and Savage Messiahwas exactly the side of zine culture that did fit in with k-punk — class conscious, vengeful, stylish, and mournful of what happened to punk and rave and suchlike. They understood each other at a much deeper level.
For me, the line between blogs and zines wasn’t absolute. I had published a zine with Robert Barry in 2003-4 and while it wasn’t very good, it’s funny looking back at how, as it goes on, we start trying to be more and more like k-punk. Later, Nina Power and I had a zine of sorts which we gave out at the film club Kino Fist, which was in some ways an attempt to collect the London blog scene together in an actual place. But the fact remains that all the connections that sparked off were only possible because of the blog format — it was so easy, it was free, and you just got vastly more readers than you would from a zine, and you got responses! I didn’t once meet someone or even hear back from a reader of the zines I’d worked on, you just dumped them in Rough Trade and hoped someone would email or write to you, which they never did. But within a few months of starting to blog I actually met and quickly became friends with Mark and Nina, because it was so simple through links to plug into that network. If they were interested in what you were doing (and they were both generous, almost to a fault) you were accepted right away. As with so many networks that look non-hierarchical, there was obviously a hierarch, which was Mark, though by and large he was a benevolent despot. Like Carl I don’t lament this side of the blogosphere, because social media and the new left networks in the UK have actually continued and reinforced it — you can meet people through, say The World Transformed, much as you could through blogging, except this time it’s plugged into a mass political movement.
In terms of the aesthetic of this, I loved how curated (a non-k-punk word, but for want of a better one) the early blogs were — the way that your eyes would go funny if you read thousands and thousands of white words on black text, which no doubt was an intentional cyberpunk effect. If you remember, there was first the k-punk blogspot, which was only mildly chic, and then the Abstractdynamics site that everyone remembers, which just looked amazing: stark, ruthless, with an unerring eye for memorable (usually uncredited) imagery. I wanted Sit Down Man to look very clear — I was obsessed with that mod line about ‘clean living in difficult circumstances’, and so it was meant to look as modernist and elegant as it could on one of the Blogger templates; it was also the place where I learned about architecture and design on the hop (if you read those early posts, and please don’t as you’ll find dozens and dozens of factual errors and misunderstandings), so it was full of modernist imagery.
The Zer0/Repeater question is such a huge one that I can only really sketch out an answer. Zer0 was all Tariq Goddard’s idea. Obviously Tariq was a moderately successful novelist rather than a blogger, and we didn’t think it would really happen or if it did happen that it wouldn’t work. But we took it seriously nonetheless, and each of those early books is an attempt to condense all or part of the writer’s blog and take it to the people that didn’t live on the blogosphere, which, among others, would include: commissioning editors, book reviewers, academia. I don’t regret that, it’s the reason I can pay the rent. Also, as the internet becomes more and more stressful, the escape of an actual printed book can be a rare place where you can actually focus your thoughts. But that process did over time take most of our writing in a less weird and aggressive direction, for better or worse.
As for the k-punk book itself, I have extremely mixed feelings about it. I — and I know I’m not the only one here — would rather that the Acid Communism introduction and the writing around it were collected into a slim book and then the blog remained the blog, especially as de-blogging it removes so much context and nuance (though, another k-punkism — ‘fuck nuance’). I suppose this slab does serve to showcase the enormous breadth of his interests and abilities, and the way, as everybody’s noticed, his political ideal softened and broadened into a humane socialism rather than the exciting but obviously unwise tunnel vision apocalyptic cyber-Stalinist anarcho-capitalism he began with as he started blogging.
Ivor Southwood: For me, the easiest way to demonstrate the uniqueness of the blog medium is to think about why the k-punk book instantly and overwhelmingly prompts that question of its migration across media, a question which would not even arise for an anthology of newspaper or journal articles. k-punk was about popular modernism in form as well as content: the link-portals, images, intertextuality, shifts in tone, neologisms, parentheses, addenda… Or think about how different a blog post is to a newspaper article or magazine review, even by the same author. Much of the distinctiveness of the blog medium is lost in the transfer to ‘proper’ online editorial platforms. Having said that, this transfer offers the writer access to a huge new readership, which is quite rightly what the proselytising blogger really wants. It was exciting to see an article by Mark in The Guardian or Sight & Sound, and recognise the traces of k-punk in it, the unexpected analogies and theoretical leaps that were clearly the product of blog-thinking rather than official journalism.
I’d say the k-punk book is also different to other books derived from blogs (or the ones I’ve read and the one I’ve written anyway), which have been honed into a physical shape and given the semblance of a coherent narrative. In these the blog form is discernible between the lines but in the course of being re-written, expanded, and compressed the thing itself has been adapted for a different environment.
To be absolutely clear, though, I am glad the k-punk book is there. It has a ‘too real to be real’ quality about it, which I suppose is to do with the awfulness of the circumstances leading to its publication, and the otherworldliness of seeing such a vast and intense archive of virtual writing in a material form. On paper the writing has a permanence which eludes online material: one day the blog might not be online; and culturally we have reached a stage, as Owen mentioned, and as Mark noted in this post (which is not in the book), where withdrawing from cyberspace is necessary in order to think and maybe to read. The ideal perhaps would have been to divide it into two books and have a volume dedicated to the blog and have another volume for the non-blog material. Although I appreciate that a lot of care has gone into separating the posts thematically, it does lose the chronological flow of the blog, so posts which originally followed on from each other are dislocated; and the political section jumps from 2006 to 2010 which is a bit odd. Laid out by date, the trajectory of the blog and its relation to events and ideas would have been more apparent: its gradual movement from inter-blog to and fro to more sustained explorations of topics; the evolution of capitalist realism and hauntology as themes across topics; Mark’s move from London to Suffolk; leaving Further Education teaching and emerging as a professional writer; the aforementioned shift from uncompromising CCRU-style theory to more practical and restrained social-democratic interventions; and the later, longer, and more self-contained posts. Alongside this is the parliamentary shift from New Labour to Tory-Liberal Democratic austerity coalition, the reinvention of left politics and the rise of right-wing populism. But still. It’s a valuable document.
Excellent point, Owen, about how blogs were meticulously curated. They were also performed through URL-names, stage-names. Being a parallel curriculum, many blogs were written and read in a parallel time (off work, in the guise of work or studying, using work resources, as a ‘hobby’) and existed, for a while at least, in a parallel, unofficial, decommodified space which was often hostile to the physical environment of work, education, careers, etc. Given this hostility, there were realistic fears of being dooced by employers and ostracised by co-workers, even for relative non-entities such as myself. (Since having my writing tied to my real name I’ve had one particular blog post about a workplace brought up out of the blue in two separate job interviews, which was disconcerting — I didn’t get either job.)
Real names and portrait photos were often conspicuously absent, and from a reader’s point of view some blogs aspired to, or achieved, a virtual state of person-as-text. The erasing of physical identity felt quite liberating and futuristic, although it would be naive to think that those elements, while concealed, didn’t still influence the content. I was keen that my blog would not have a gender, for instance, and another blog writer told me later they had also tried to maintain this for as long as possible (admittedly this was easier if, like me, you were not physically meeting other bloggers, posting conference talks, etc.). It is interesting to compare this with the career-orientated, personal-brand-building visibility of a lot of social media activism.
And it would be daft not to admit that there was a certain escapism, a sense of dressing up, in creating and curating an online text version of oneself with the blemishes and awkwardnesses edited out.
Owen Hatherley: Reading it did bring back all of those masks and constructed identities and how they were all playing themselves out, exactly as all the cyberpunk literature said they were supposed to. The editor [Darren Ambrose] obviously did a lot of work to find out who the various pseudonymous people referred to are: ‘as Simon says’ or ‘as I.T says’ were easy enough, but ‘as Bat says’, ‘as Scanshifts says’, ‘as Poetix says’, as Savonarola or Voyou or Heronbone or Zone Styx or Bacteriagrl or Lenin or Glueboot says, more difficult.
Rhian E. Jones: Just a quick point on appreciating the pseudonymous or constructed nature of blog-authoring: it always made me think, among other points of comparison, of inflammatory political pamphlets of the 1790s onwards, though it was also obviously a convention of the early internet/messageboard culture where I cut my teeth.
There’s been a striking shift over the past few years from anon/pseudonymous online identities — often necessary to avoid real-world repercussions, such as Ivor’s experience — to pointedly identifying one’s online opinions with one’s real-world existence. The latter often struck me as a relatively privileged position, to be able to assert provocative or radical opinions in your own name without having a day job in which you might have to explain your anti-work online rant in front of your boss or colleagues, whereas anon/pseudonymity was a necessity for most of us. But now — thinking mostly of journalism — the assertion of opinion often seems to be used as a springboard to professional attention or paid work.
Simon Reynolds: My position is a little different than most bloggers — I did a fanzine in the 80s, then worked as a journalist, then started a website in 1996. The website actually anticipated some of the things about blogging that I would love — it was a way that people could contact me, I could publish things that were too ‘loose’ or vehement to be published in most magazines; it was also an online repository for things I’d done that had only appeared in print, which was nearly everything then. But it was laborious to upload new content. There was a period in the early 2000s when I was reading blogs or blog-like entities like New York London Paris Munich and Freaky Trigger and Skykicking, feeling the energy and getting excited — so pretty quickly I jumped in myself. The function of the blog for me was different, in so far as I had plenty of outlets already as a professional writer, but they were scattered, and they had behavioural norms. Here was a central spot where people could find me and where I could misbehave, write in a casual and chatty way, think aloud (in fact my website at one point was called A White Brit Raver Thinks Aloud — taking a veiled insult someone had directed at me for the first bit). The ‘thinks aloud’ was the key point, i.e. this is sketched-out, freeform, not as considered as what I would do for a print publication. The flexibility of the blog mode was so liberating, so much fun: you could do extremely long posts or very short ones; you could come back the next day or week with further thoughts on the same topic; you could have long digressions, or pieces that were multi-segmented and had only a very loose connective thread, or none at all — just random thoughts and whimsies for that day; you could write about this-minute things or old things, like a record you had found in a second-hand shop, or pulled out of your collection. And the connectivity and collectivity of it was very exciting — that you could disagree, or agree but build on someone’s argument, or have someone else build on yours — the amiable fractiousness of it, the remote collaborative quality. And all happening in near real-time.
For me, the thing about blogs was the speed, the ease, the informality, the interaction with other people. It provided a remedy for the isolation of the freelance lifestyle. And through it you ‘met’ — sometimes in real life later, but mostly through blog dialogue and emails — all kinds of odd, interesting people with all this knowledge they’d been accumulating and who suddenly had a place to disgorge it.
The k-punk the book is a bit of a slab. The blog generated writing of such quality that it absolutely warrants being in a book, but some of the contents lose a dimension when separated from the posts on other blogs that triggered it, or the posts that it triggered, and the fractious comment box beneath it. Also the loss of the images depletes the impact.
Rhian E. Jones: My ‘journey’ to the blogosphere now feels almost scripted: I grew up in a former mining town in the Welsh Valleys, and spent the 90s seeking escapism through music and books, politics, and culture — in general looking for things that had some movement, some dynamism, some forward trajectory, to set against the stagnancy and stasis that defined growing up in a post-industrial area. I was a Manics fan, of course. I was also an obsessive reader of the weekly music press, which, for me as for others, opened my eyes to a particular form of cultural analysis and ‘reading’ of past and contemporary culture. I received this — the casual references to Rockism, postmodernism, 1968, why Sleeper were the wrong way to write about provincial boredom and why Kenickie were the right way — without much knowledge or understanding of the history, theory, or politics behind it; it appealed to me mostly because it justified my adolescent prejudices (anti-Tory, anti-hippie, for example) but also because it chimed so strongly with my conviction that culture, particularly music, was vitally important both in itself and because it held some as-yet-unarticulated political import — the idea that music could, if not change the world, then at least explain it.
The crash-and-burn of the 90s music press coincided with my leaving the Valleys for university in London. Early-2000s university was pretty dull, not the 1968 redux I was expecting, and in particular the then-hegemonic idea — at least within history and politics, which were my subjects — that ‘class’ was passé as both an axis of oppression and a subject of analysis somewhat wrong-footed me. This meant my attachment to class as anything knowable or material foundered and it took me a while to regain it. In this I feel somewhat typical of the left as a whole.
In the early 2010s, I was working as a shop assistant (at Foyles bookshop, where many overqualified and unemployable drifters have traditionally sought refuge, both as staff and customers). I was living in a single room in Dalston after the predictably catastrophic breakup of a catastrophic relationship which had also caused me to alienate the majority of my social circle. All of which meant that my life at that point revolved around minimum-wage shift work and disconsolate drinking with work colleagues, many of whom were also musicians, artists, actors, playwrights, poets — people who, thirty or forty years earlier, might have been able to subsist on the dole and/or living in squats with the time, space, and energy to work creatively; or who, in the 2010s, with more middle-class backgrounds and better connections, might have become one of the (fairly insufferable) cultural workers and self-facilitating media nodes that Dalston was full of. I mention this because, ten years later, there’s now a general recognition of how neoliberalism has materially reshaped the cultural industries and the opportunities available to working-class creatives, but there was certainly an incompletely articulated recognition of this at the time — a sense that former options and alternatives had been closed off. Occasionally, since this was so rarely acknowledged openly, you began to wonder if these options and alternatives had ever existed at all, if the cultural networks and political possibilities of the 1970s were merely some desperate fever dream you’d made up on the bus back to your bedsit.
So Capitalist Realism — which we stocked at Foyles, and which I got through in one lunch hour — gave me a sense of relief which is difficult to overstate. Even though the ideas themselves weren’t exactly new to me, the naming of this hitherto nameless malaise, the sense of Oh thank god, that’s it exactly! felt like a dam breaking.
At that point I had no real knowledge of, or connection with, the k-punk blogosphere, but I’d tentatively started my own blog, mostly for music reviewing, and was active in other corners of online nominally left pop culture: archaic and now defunct anonymous messageboards; the now defunct feminist pop culture site Bad Reputation, which was largely socialist-feminist in outlook. I was also on Twitter — again, smaller and more enjoyably weird than it is today — where its various cross-currents gradually brought me into contact with, or awareness of, some of the bloggers and writers involved, as well as with Zer0 Books. My own blogging was heavily influenced by my reading of the 90s music press: epithet-laden, veering between high-handed disdain and intense adulation, and shot through with throwaway summaries of political and critical theory in the service of explaining why a band was good or bad. This was a style that seemed to have disappeared entirely in the 2000s and I missed it desperately. So rediscovering a commitment to it in the writing of Mark and others was, again, a huge relief.
I never got particularly closely involved with that circle — partly because I felt, in 2012 or so, a relative latecomer, partly because I often found it hugely intellectually intimidating, and partly because it seemed based around an already-formed nexus of inextricable personal/political relationships. The combative/judgemental nature of some of it bothered me less than the impression that there was little space for a non-approved outsider. (This may have been true, or frankly this may have been my situational depression talking — it doesn’t make too much difference to the present situation, I don’t think). The ‘decades blogs’ [a set of collectively authored blogs covering pop culture and politics of the 70s, 80s, and 90s], seeming both more peripheral and more accommodating, were where I first really got involved, and got a great deal of encouragement that eventuated in my first book. As others have said, this all had a vaguely therapeutic air, certainly feeling like the rediscovery of a lost or forgotten community.
Owen Hatherley: It occurs to me there’s a temporal question here about blogging that might get missed. In terms of ‘music press writing is not dead!’, k-punk was preceded, by a few years, by what later got called ‘Poptimism’ (Freaky Trigger/New York London Paris Munich/ILX and so forth, which was exciting in its own way, but was politically quite quietist, and a certain amount of the aggression of k-punk was aimed at its chirpy unseriousness). The Dissensus forum [founded in 2004] was I think consciously set up as a more theoretical and cyberpunkish alternative to ILX (and probably, less friendly, though also less laden with in-jokes, so it was easier, I felt, to get involved in if you didn’t already know people). So k-punk wasn’t some sort of founding event, but it intervened in something that was already happening and made it much more serious; it was political and also personal in a new way — not just in a curatorial, ‘here is my amazing taste’ sense, but in the sense that culture could matter emotionally and politically. It was about loss, so much of it (it’s no accident that so many early blogs were started after people had suffered serious illnesses — mental and physical), and Poptimism, however much I love Tom Ewing and Mark Sinker’s writing, was very resistant to any notion that culture declines or advances, and accordingly, felt rather part of a wider, deflationary postmodernist way of looking at culture and history. Really there were two frequent targets in the early years: broadsheet columnists, BBC4, and so on; but also the ILX world (which also notably tended to be somewhat posher).
It’s interesting Rhian that you say that in 2012 it seemed that there was this very strongly defined group and that you didn’t feel you could be part of it, because that’s the exact point that as both as a set of regularly updating blogs and as a friendship group it fell apart and we all went on to do other things instead (and as you say, the decades blogs were where the interesting arguments and ideas were by then, and writers like you, Carl, Alex Niven, ‘Wayne Kasper’, Phil Knight all had quite different preoccupations and challenged a lot of the circa 2005 blogs’ received ideas). So there was another generation after the group who did the first Zer0 books, but there wasn’t really another generation of bloggers after that.
Anwen Crawford: I never wanted a public profile, and to me that was always a great part of the appeal of blogs (and zines): anonymity, pseudonymity. (I regret ever starting to publish under my real name: once that genie was out of the bottle it couldn’t be crammed back in.) People have already discussed why this sense of ‘masking’ was important, and the way in which the blogosphere provided an alternative writing and publishing ecosystem to the general mundanity, the punditry, of mainstream media. And I just have to add for the record that I met all my oldest and dearest friends through zines, and this isn’t an exaggeration, contra Owen’s complaint about never meeting anyone through zines…
Owen Hatherley: It is extremely possible that the reason why nobody contacted us about our zine is that our zine was rubbish.
Ivor Southwood: As those para-academic political blogs led by k-punk have fragmented into social media and cohered into books, a lot of the space they once occupied has been filled by podcasts and videos, of which Novara is perhaps the most well known. These are inevitably more personalised and tied to ‘real-life’ careers than were their blog precursors. This is not of course to suggest that blogs are immune from entrepreneurial aspirations, but even a relatively low budget ‘DIY’ podcast relies on social connections, public self-confidence and time/space which aren’t available to most people and weren’t necessary for a non-professional blog. For instance, it was no big deal for me to upload a blog post, but I would never have contemplated recording a podcast or video, so if this had been the dominant medium a decade ago for better or worse my routines on precarious work and welfare would never have been developed or shared with anyone.
Obviously there are podcasts which are genuinely collaborative and politically progressive, and they are an unprecedented means of directly broadcasting previously unheard, marginalised voices. I wonder though, whether in the particular realm of the former blogosphere under discussion here, the change in medium has tended to favour individuals armed with a confidence often acquired from particular class or educational backgrounds, and to overlook those who aren’t well-connected or don’t want to put themselves ‘out there’ for various reasons. As noted by Rhian with regards to journalism, there is a whiff of privilege here also.
This class-based confidence, embodied in the ‘urbane at-homeness-in-the-world’ of entitlement — and the opposite feeling of not-belonging and inferiority — was a constant thread in Mark’s work (see for instance here, and here). These factors continue to exert an influence on how public discourse is shaped, both offline and online.
Carl Neville: I think the above is an excellent point by Ivor. Blogging meant that all kinds of marginal figures and people who had marinated away in their garrets for years stewing in half-digested theory and resentment (i.e. me) could suddenly get it all out there. It’s a little bit analogous to this sudden opening up of political space in the Labour party via Corbynism. If you go to any Momentum meeting it does of course have its fair share of cranks, oddballs, and conspiracists, BUT this is an inevitable consequence of everyone having been on their own for so long. Things get obsessive and often vaguely unhinged when you have spent so much time in the wilderness. So some of the energy of early blogging is just that: a massive cathartic release in which provocation, identification, a certain wildness are key and ideas and personas swirl around in quite a turbulent way.
I was having a chat with my brother-in-law about this new, younger generation of leftists the other day and their heavy presence in the media and he asked me essentially if I was envious or resentful of their opportunities to be famous and on the left in a way that I in my 20s never had. I have to say I am not; I simply wasn’t capable of the kind of confidence they demonstrate.
The basic question is the Shy Radicals one right? To what extent does the current mediascape allow for the introverted to express themselves? I think k-punk’s obsessive depersonalisation/anti-facialisation/desire for the collective was one manifestation of this desire to speak and be heard but not to be seen, to be central to something without being the centre of attention. I think, generationally, to some extent, the idea of selling yourself and networking are anathema to the sense of how a person ought to operate in the world and blogs also represented a way in which people could escape the increasing impingement of neoliberal selfhood. I wonder if some of Mark’s difficulties later weren’t a consequence of feeling he ought to be having a media career of some kind and finding he just didn’t want it, wasn’t up for it and that the logic of web 2.0 meant that he would have had to realign himself in ways that were essentially impossible for him.
It is true that blogs come from a different technological regimen — I mean, I remember, I think via Blissblog, discovering YouTube and a link to a PiL video that took ages to load, or Nina Power trying to get everyone to join this new thing called (tellingly) Facebook. So a lot of the blogging was happening at a real juncture in the ways in which online life and the availability of online resources were really altering into the kinds of platforms that have dominated the last decade. And [which] possibly entrenched certain neoliberal forms of selfhood even amongst those most deeply opposed to it.
Ivor Southwood: Viva resentment! I don’t want the confidence of a middle-class P[hilosophy] P[olitics] E[conomics] graduate, I just want their time and money LOL. What we need is for parcels of that new generation confidence to be distributed as needed to those of us who are routinely called to stand in front of managers or benefits advisors and justify ourselves.
Carl Neville: That’s the kind of confidence that unions used to afford you. That institutional support and buffer was so important in determining the degree to which you felt able to speak up/speak out. Or just knowing that you had that support pushed you to learn how to articulate your concerns. That great Arthur Scargill quote at the start of Tony Harrison’s V.: ‘My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.’ But of course just the mastery without the institutions that bolster your ability to speak results in the sort of black hole that many people fell into in the 90s. Which reminds me, also, of this.
Ivor Southwood: Yes, the absence of unions has left a vacuum, but there are whole groups of people whom those unions never represented anyway — casual workers, unpaid domestic workers, unemployed workers. Now there seems to be an incongruity between the confidence and visibility of media activism and the timidity and invisibility of non-media people, whom this activism is supposed to be campaigning for. One might say the surplus virtual confidence of Novara et al. exists alongside a chronic real-life confidence deficit. You are right though, the words do matter. Most people don’t even have the language in which to articulate their experience — a lot of this is, of course, related to class conflict being replaced by individual narratives of aspiration.
Owen Hatherley: The podcasts point is really interesting, and it is probably the actual counterculture we’re looking for, staring us in the face, and I won’t recognise it as such because I don’t like it very much. I find it shrill and unfunny and annoying — but then, aren’t we meant to find new pop-cultural forms like that when we’re 38? And yeah, I do think the confidence and assuredness of it all part of why it’s unappealing. One thing I always bang on about, as Carl will know, is that people on the left are allowed on TV as pundits, but never as cultural producers. We don’t make shows, whether fiction or non-fiction, we just ‘comment’ on stuff — never investigate, never fictionalise. Instead there’s all this amateur radio.
Anwen Crawford: I want to ask something about counterculture, and the ways in which we might approach creating a contemporary counterculture of (or for?) the left. Mark was circling this question in his work on Acid Communism [an unfinished introduction to a proposed book on this subject is the final piece in the k-punk anthology], looking back to the psychedelic counterculture of the 60s (a droll irony for someone who, for so long, was reflexively anti-hippie), and the failure of parts of the more traditional left, then, to come to terms with the counterculture and — importantly — with the counterculture’s relationship to mass culture.
And it’s always seemed to me (as someone too young to have lived through it) that the post-punk era which was so central to Mark’s writing and thinking is also deeply connected to the idea of a counterculture. I mean, with post-punk you have a thriving network of musicians, artists, writers, et al., who orientate themselves against ‘professionalisation’ and against the spectacle of TV fame/the music biz, and so on, while also not being anti-pop, per se. This problem (in both a ‘good problem’/‘bad problem’ sense) of trying to harness the libidinal energies of popular culture for ends other than the reinforcement of capitalist realism was always crucial to Mark’s work; it runs through the entire k-punk project.
Ellen Willis, whose writing Mark talks about in the unfinished Acid Communism essay, wrote in her essay ‘The Cultural Revolution Saved From Drowning’ — a critique of Woodstock published just weeks after that festival happened — that ‘there can’t be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution’. But is that wholly true? It seems to me that something like the revived Tribune, for instance, which I know both Owen and Rhian are involved in, is a very conscious attempt to build a model of left cultural creation and cultural criticism that harks back — a long way back, way further than the 60s — to dreams and attempts at a cultural commonwealth, a radical popular culture in its deepest sense.
I guess part of the reason I’m interested in thinking through the viability (or otherwise) of a left counterculture is that I maintain a suspicion of electoral politics, for various reasons, including — but not limited to — the specific terrain of Australian electoral politics, and the fact that the Australian Labor Party never has been and never will be on the side of labour in the struggle against capital.
Owen Hatherley: The way we were thinking of counterculture was definitely connected to the strange sort of cosplay we were doing with post-punk. It’s not accidental that a post-punk revival was happening at the same time. I met Mark at the launch of Simon’s post-punk book, and we would go and see ageing members of Scritti Politti or The Slits at panel discussions and get irritated by them. And this was such a touchstone for how we thought about culture and media and politics: we were equally interested in the ‘underground’ phase, when you have your Factory and your Rough Trade and you build your own network, and in the succeeding ‘entryist’ phase, when you sign to a major and you have ‘Jacques Derrida’ in the charts or whatever. Obviously, these are completely contradictory, but I don’t think we thought of it like that — both were a reaction to the cultural and political nadir we found ourselves in, where either ‘a serious and well-organised underground’ or ‘a mainstream where intellectual ideas were commonly thrown around’ seemed equally utopian and exciting. (There was also the interest in revolutionary experiment in the early and late USSR, which I’d written about and which was really the only thing I knew about that Mark didn’t, which is why he was interested in my stuff in the first place.)
I love Ellen Willis but I obviously don’t really agree with that point, and I don’t entirely think she did either. Revolutionary prefiguration and experiment is obviously important, just so long as it doesn’t become a substitute. And that’s what counterculture was for us: a substitute or a consolation, something we could hang on to and say ‘this happened!’, and argue against the very dull idea that culture just floats in the ether, in a moment when we felt completely politically gutted and defeated. That’s also connected to the (historically quite dubious) way people like Alain Badiou — who was a big part of our world until people gradually realised what a classicist he was — wrote about ‘Events’ in the context of a ‘restoration’, as something that really happened. Asserting that Hex Enduction Hour or Detroit Techno or what have you really happened became important. There was this belief that if you had a counterculture it could strengthen your politics, suffuse it with energy, make it exciting — a bit like the Black Panther thing of dressing in a certain way to get the kids involved. (Should I tell the anecdote here about the Blog Politburo regularly attending a Goth club in north London in Red Army uniforms in order to start conversations with Goths about Communism? I think we were well ahead of the curve in thinking that Communist Goths would be the new vanguard.)
The problem we — and here I again mean we as in people who aren’t at all from social democratic backgrounds working in social democratic parties — are facing is that there actually isn’t much happening, culturally. Perhaps this actually isn’t a problem? It would contradict everything we believed, but it has been nine years since the student protests and Occupy and I can count the new countercultural events on the one hand — if we’re defining culture in the way we did, as pop music, film, TV. There’s Grime4Corbyn and Stormzy at the Brits, there’s Sorry to Bother You, Jeremy Deller’s lecture on BBC4, and maybe one or two other things; I’m sure others can think of more. I’m not sure whether what we’re trying to do at Tribune is try and spur the creation of a new pop culture or if we’re still doing the same thing, which is still saying ‘this happened!’. But that’s in a new situation where politically, if not culturally, things are happening at such speeds that we can barely keep up. But I do maintain that at the lower level, the networks around Momentum/The World Transformed are comparable to those of blogs or zines or post-punk to some degree. K-punk hero Tom Vague had this line about how punk was what the UK had instead of Baader-Meinhof or the Red Brigades, and I remember talking to Mark about that line and what it meant, and which of these nihilistic youth movements was supposed to be better or worse (though I’d say that through Rock Against Racism, punk had much better long-term political effects than left-wing terrorism ever did — I digress!)
Reading Vampire Castle against the grain a bit, how Mark describes [Russell] Brand is how he is describing himself — slightly effeminate and glam, working class, eloquent (although Mark was rather more stocky and wasn’t wearing make-up quite so often by this point) — and yet he’d probably have flunked the interview by telling [Jeremy] Paxman he was being ‘delibidinising’ or insufficiently Spinozist or something. Mark never really did go overground, but he wrote constantly about how important it was that people did. I’ll admit that one of my many reactions to Vampire Castle was wondering why he was wasting his time with this rubbish, wasn’t he meant to be becoming our public intellectual or something by making TV programmes or writing think tank reports rather than arguing with prats on Twitter (although — credit where it’s due — he did do the think tank report for Compass).
There’s an agreement in this discussion — especially from Anwen and Ivor — that ‘going public’ was not part of what appealed to them in blogs, if anything the reverse. That’s fine and definitely part of it and I’d hate to suggest otherwise, but there was also really rather a lot about getting in there and taking over ‘their’ spaces and doing things in public. Wanting things to happen in public and en masse and in real time is why Mark was so scornful towards HBO box set TV and so obsessed with terrible reality and talent shows, and why he was so into football. This was there alongside all the anti–‘faciality’, pseudonymous, sleeper agent stuff.
It occurs to me that looking for change or hope in culture specifically is one reason for the strange unevenness of Ghosts of My Life or The Weird and the Eerie, and their extremely frequent overrating of things. So much of those two books is Mark writing about cultural artefacts that were a lot less interesting than he was. Which is also very post-punk but taken to its logical conclusion. ‘Hauntology’ will be remembered like some sort of post-punk where nobody remembers the bands (except Burial) but everyone remembers its Paul Morley.
Simon Reynolds: I must admit, I find this idea of writing and not being interested in being read completely foreign to my outlook. Unless you are writing a diary, or a letter addressed to one person, when you write, you always have being read in mind. You write to persuade, to entertain, to share, to show off — any number of motives — but there’s always the idea of an audience if you are putting it out in public. And blogging was, and is, a public activity — you are writing for the eyes of strangers, as well as fellow bloggers, and remote colleagues on the circuit. So the whole idea of this self-effacing, please-overlook-me approach to writing, it’s hard for me to understand really. There is a certain base level assumption of ‘I am worth paying attention to’ in any public act, whether it’s writing or performance or whatever. (Often the assumption is misplaced, of course…)
And likewise, although we might like to emphasise the collectivity and cooperative element to blogging, what with being on the left and all, it was also — let’s be honest — a competitive space too. The blogging world was fuelled in part by competitive drives, by ego. And Mark was competitive, he wanted to excel, to flex his gifts — to come up with a better take than anyone else on whatever it was he was moved to write about. Mark’s ideas were very important, but he was also a pure writer in a way that an athlete is a pure athlete — in love with style, with the pacing and drama of a piece of prose.
That side of him — the Nietzschean aristocratic impulse and style — is what fed into his particular glam aesthetic, and which he had to go through great contortions to reconcile with anonymous collectivity Kommunistic swarm-logic, because glam and socialism are irreconcilable — one is the opposite of the other. (But that’s a side-argument, and possibly an interminable one.)
I think Owen’s reference to Russell Brand as a sort of aspirational model for Mark is spot on — after that phase of going on about swarms and anonymous defacialised collectives-with-a-K, Mark seemed to go through some kind of shift where — and perhaps it had been thrust upon him by the attention that he had won — he was playing with the idea of being some kind of thought leader, a properly public figure. He had the gift of putting ideas into easily graspable slogans or memes. ‘Capitalist realism’ takes Gramsci and Fredric Jameson and puts it across a way that a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as academic or even as intellectual can understand. ‘The secret sadness of 21st Century’ is even more legible and has alliteration and assonance to make it super catchy.
As for the counterculture… post-punk is simply the 60s, Pt 2. The Rough Trade shop was based in a Ladbroke Grove premise that until then had been a head shop. Post-punks were hippies with different haircuts and a more uptight, anxious vibe/sound.
And post-punk repeated all the same mistakes, or at least went up all the same blind alleys. Because the market — selling things — is the only way to propagate ideas (well, there’s free festivals and pirate radio), it quickly becomes a niche form of capitalism. Rough Trade was a privately owned business that, for idealistic reasons, pretended to be a collective: they had meetings where supposedly everyone gets to decide about everything from signings and releases to whose turn it is to empty the bins. But then they got sucked into the logic of ‘well we must get our ideas out there, to the widest possible audience’ and start focusing on the roster, trying to get commercially competitive production for your Aztec Camera’s and Scritti Politti’s, hiring radio pluggers; a more standard business structure and office hierarchy emerged, and so on.
I think the problem with both phases of the counterculture is the over-estimation of culture as a form of power. Which is the faith that we all share, I think. It’s a hard one to give up. (It’s interesting that Mark, in tracing back his own belief system to its source, eventually overcame his 60s phobia, and went right back to the source of that faith, back to Marcuse and Ellen Willis.)
I very much fear that it’s a displacement activity, a substitute for real political action — and that the only way to change things is to get into the administration of things. Which is very boring and unglamorous and full of awful people. I don’t think the history of political pop is terribly impressive, from MC5 to Manics. Impressive as politics, I mean, rather than artistically (the music and lyrics are often wonderful, although not in the case of the aforementioned). But as much as I love them, my own personal favourites — like Scritti Politti or Gang of Four — are failures as political interventions.
Anwen Crawford: I just want to clarify something with regard to this discussion about ‘going public’, from my own perspective, because there seems to be a misunderstanding that what I’m in favour of is not being read, which also implies having no real ambition regarding the quality of one’s work (because who cares if it’s any good, if no one will read it?). I want to draw a distinction, because it’s an important distinction, to me, between having one’s work published and/or circulated, which of course implies a ‘public’ (and I count the self-publishing models of zines and blogs as forms that imply a reading public; indeed I agree with Simon that all writing implies a reader and I would include both diary and letter writing in this, too), and being a public figure.
To me, desiring the former does not mean you have to want the latter, or that you should be made to feel like you should want it. Carl put it very well [in the previous instalment] as the ‘desire to speak and be heard but not to be seen, to be central to something without being the centre of attention’.
But it makes me quite cranky when the distinction between public work and public fame is collapsed, i.e. if you don’t want the latter thing, fame, then you mustn’t care, really, about whether your work is any good. To my mind, nothing could be further from the truth. I believe in self-effacement, in the sense of being able to choose to be ‘faceless’ to the public, of masking, pseudonymity, anonymity, all those things that blogs did so well — but I don’t think it means having to shrink one’s political and artistic ambitions, nor do I think it necessarily means giving up on ‘competition’ in the sense of being spurred on to do better things by argument, discussion, other people’s work, and so on. It’s not the only model, but it’s a model, and to my mind perhaps a more promising model than the left trying to find itself some ‘charismatic’ TV stars. The logic of personal fame — and social media is owned and engineered by people who fetishise the anti-democracy of fame — will only ever trap us within a dull, reductive model of everyone-as-their-own-brand. I don’t think that strategising through/about swarms, masks, crowds or ‘facelessness’ is at all trivial, given the context we’re living in with regards to the mass surveillance machine of the current internet.
I’m still interested in the project of a counterculture for the present, not just as a substitute or a consolation for the failure of political projects, but as something connected with a political project? And I don’t think pop music, per se, is the vehicle for this — I don’t think it was ever able to be, not in the 60s, or 70s, or now; not as an art form wholly produced by, and within, the logic of capitalism, alluring as the dream of revolution-through-pop might be. But music outside of the pop machine, theatre, visual art, writing, film, architecture — all of these have potential to be reimagined by us, reinvigorated by us. This is the popular culture I’m thinking of, though I’m also thinking, here, of the Situationist line that art as a ‘specialised field’ must be overcome….
Rhian E. Jones I did particularly want to second Anwen’s distinction between placing importance on finding a reading/viewing/listening public and being a public figure, and there being no need for one to follow on from the other.
I do wonder if the current inability to separate the reading public from being a public figure is a result of not only the apparent generational loss of the idea of the public intellectual (not that that tradition was without its problems), but also the loss in the 90s, and after, of the idea of political writers, activists, spokespeople, etc. having a representative function that was wider than themselves. With an elected position like trade union leader it’s fairly obvious from where you derive your authority, but when you’re an individual left/liberal pundit it’s less obvious and so — increasingly, at least in the last decade — there’s a tendency to appeal to personal validity and integrity to explain where you’re coming from through an articulation of the circumstances that have shaped you personally, rather than a materialist appeal to the section of society you’re seen to represent. You couldn’t merely be doing an ‘ordinary’ job and be an ‘ordinary’ person — or be dissatisfied, alienated and struggling financially in the fairly mundane way common to millions under late-stage capitalism — and just think socialism was a good idea.
Some of this has eventuated in what’s now called ‘authentocracy’ but, like all of this, it’s been a long time coming. We now have almost the reverse of that desire to be heard but not seen; the first principle of media recognition or attention for individuals who [now] attempt to say something political is: ‘is this person interesting enough to be seen?’ rather than ‘is what this person is saying interesting enough to be heard?’, and individuals often seem to have internalised that in how they approach both traditional and social media. Even before social media, decades of the mediatisation of politics also meant a concentration on charismatic individuals at the expense of mass involvement with party democracy. The media’s huge emphasis on individual charisma — and when it isn’t present, the insistence that it is — when pushing particular political figures or pundits has intersected really destructively with this. I seem to recall Novara’s roots were broadly Situationist (were they part of the Deterritorial Support Group, or am I misremembering?), so I tend to cut them a bit of slack, but I also regret their turn from research and analysis to punditry. How well Mark could have fitted into this media landscape, or attempted to alter or subvert it, I don’t know.
Read Part 3 of this conversation here.